How to Trick Toddlers Into Thinking They Got Their Way

Giving a toddler a little agency allows them to tap into their inherent egocentrism and pride.

by Andy Netzel
Originally Published: 
A toddler boy sitting in a shopping cart and looking at grocery products

The difference between a fun trip around town with a toddler and a temper tantrum-filled fight can come down to whether or not a child believes that he or she is being involved in decision making. This can be tough because, in most cases, that’s not what’s happening. But the good news is that toddlers are easily convinced that almost anything was definitely their idea. After all, ideas are kind of their big thing.

“It’s the hallmark of being a toddler. Toddlers are full of their own ideas,” explains Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center For Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. All those ideas are connected, in part, to a toddler’s natural egocentric nature. The trick is in turning that egocentrism to suit the parent’s will, like developmental ju-jitsu.

However, it’s not enough to get a kid excited to get out the door by it being their idea. Parents have to make sure they continually stay excited throughout the whole trip. This requires allowing them to have more and more ideas as the day goes on.

Luckily, part of the fun of anything for a toddler is being a part of a parent’s world — even when that means running errands before going to the playground. To capitalize on that sense of fun, Klein suggests that parents try to enlist their kid’s help. It may take a little more time to get things done — toddlers are not helpful — but if everyone’s having a good time (particularly the toddler) that time can be counted as playtime.

It’s all a matter of perspective, according to Klein. Dragging your kid along on a series of chores may not sound like fun, but that’s often where parents go wrong. “Sometimes when you’re a parent, you think you have to do the big fun. It’s Disney World! But really, they just want to spend time with you,” Klein says. “The idea that children are only excited about child things is where we go wrong.”

Consider a child-worthy errand like taking a trip to the hardware store. Klein suggests parents give their kid agency by asking them to help out: “I’m trying to find a hinge to fix the door. It looks just like this. Can you help me find it?” If they get stuck? Let them ask the hardware store worker assist them in tracking it down. Better yet, let them make a decision that isn’t totally vital to the process. Hold choices up side by side and ask the toddler which one to pick.

Four Ways to Make Toddler Logic Work for You:

  • Give your toddler a task. Push the cart. Carry the bag.
  • Let your child make decisions. This one or that one?
  • Distract. Talk about one thing they’re excited about while you do the task that needs to be done.
  • Remind them that this was their idea. This is so fun. I’m so glad you chose this!

Offering choices when out running errands gives parents a chance to reinforce the toddler’s “my idea” joy. Whether they’ve picked out a hinge at the hardware store, or a fruit at the grocery store, parents can mention to a cashier or passerby that the child made the choice. It’s about banking on that toddler pride and then watching it glow.

“A lot of confidence comes from these activities,” Klein said. “We live in a world where we as parents think we need to make children happy, happy, happy. But children know how to do that. Our job is to help them through the other moments.”

Importantly, making a toddler feel like it’s their idea doesn’t stop when parents walk back through their front door. At home, parents can engage their toddler in projects by doing things like handing Mom the appropriate tools. If helping isn’t safe or practical, set up another similar task to do alongside.

But it’s also important to give a kid an out. Remember this is all “their idea.” If there are 30 minutes of focused work left on a project and there’s an episode of Paw Patrol on the DVR that can distract a dragging child, there’s no shame in enlisting the help of Ryder and his crew. Just reconnect by sharing in the glory of that finished project when it’s eventually finished.

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